The Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in a position that could be described as precarious. Or advantageous. It depends on your perspective.
Heading into a game Thursday against the Sabres (30-30-9, 69 points) in Buffalo, the Penguins (38-23-9, 85) are equidistant in terms of points from the first-place Washington Capitals (89) in the Metropolitan Division and the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference (Canadiens and Blue Jackets, 81).
"There's a fine line between winning and losing in this league," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "The parity in the league is as good as it's ever been. Every night is a hard-fought game. And that's just the reality of today's NHL.
"So I think the competitive advantage lies in preparation and execution and focus."
Pittsburgh has won five of its past six games despite a list of injuries that currently includes defensemen Kris Letang and Olli Maatta, as well as wingers Zach Aston-Reese and Bryan Rust. Letang seems the closest to returning.
The Penguins' 5-3 comeback win Tuesday against Washington pulled them to within four points of the division lead.
"We're aware that we have a chance to catch Washington," Pittsburgh defenseman Marcus Pettersson told The Athletic. "It's not the biggest goal, but it is a goal. And I'm sure it would give us some confidence going into the playoffs."
Pittsburgh leading scorer Sidney Crosby has reached 90 points by amassing eight goals and 17 points over the past nine games.
The Penguins are aiming for their 13th straight appearance in the postseason, but that is not assured with 12 games left in the regular season.
Their win Tuesday ended Washington's seven-game winning streak. In their previous game, the Penguins snapped Boston's 19-game point streak.
"Those are two really good teams that we beat," said goaltender Matt Murray, who has started a career-high nine games in a row. "I like our game the last couple here. We're trending in the right direction. We definitely have to keep it going."
The Sabres would seem to be a prime opponent for that. Buffalo has lost five straight games (0-4-1) and 11 of the past 13, is a long way out of a playoff spot and will be playing without leading scorer Jack Eichel, who will be serving the second game of a two-game suspension.
In their first game without Eichel, who was disciplined for an illegal check to the head of Colorado forward Carl Soderberg, the Sabres fell to Dallas 2-0 on Tuesday. It was their second straight shutout loss.
Pittsburgh is 0-0-2 against the Sabres this season, but Buffalo is reeling.
"Just stay the course," Buffalo coach Phil Housley said. "I mean, we've just got to keep digging in here and working. We're going to break through. ... It's just right now, this is where we're at as a group. We've got to find a way to make it tougher on goalies."
Buffalo scored 13 goals in four games before the two shutout losses. That includes a 4-3 overtime win at Pittsburgh on March 1. But the bottom has dropped out offensively, and Eichel won't be coming to the rescue Thursday.
"If you have zero goals you can always do more," winger Jeff Skinner said. "We'll keep working on it."
Buffalo defenseman Zach Bogosian (upper body) did not play in the third period Tuesday and did not practice Wednesday. Housley did not have an update on his status.
--Field Level Media